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Home > Blog - In All Things > Gerry O'Hanlon SJ > The Irish Referendum – discerning the spirits

The Irish Referendum – discerning the spirits

Last Saturday evening there was an explosion of joy among the crowd at Dublin Castle when the result of the Irish Referendum on gay marriage was officially announced. The ‘yes’ side had gained just over 62% of the vote, the ‘no’ side just under 38%, on a turn-out of over 60% of the electorate (the fifth highest poll ever, in this 34th amendment to the 1937 Irish Constitution). By any standard this was a decisive and handsome victory – only one of Ireland’s 43 constituencies voted against the amendment.

The atmosphere among the crowd in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland was carnival like – rainbow flags flying, people smiling and embracing, a sense of delight. This, on the Vigil of the Feast of the Holy Spirit, was a kind of secular Pentecost, a communal experience of movement from fear to peace and joy. There was a sense of consolation. And many avoided the temptation of moving from delight to triumphalism.

The openly gay Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin were at one in describing what had happened as ‘a social revolution’. In truth it was astonishing that up to 1993 homosexual acts were criminalised in Ireland, civil partnership had been introduced only in 2010, and now, so soon afterwards, the Irish people had become the first in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote. And, it would seem, this move won substantial support at all levels of Irish society – from the young, certainly, but also from older people; from rural as well as urban; from working class as well as middle class.

It would seem that those on the ‘no’ side of the campaign – despite the obvious disappointment of defeat – shared the good will that this result so clearly expressed towards gay people. It was a ringing statement that ‘you belong’, a loving embrace of all the gay women and men who are our brothers and sisters, our family and friends. In this respect the reaction on the ‘no’ side was predominantly dignified and gracious, refusing to allow the disappointment of defeat turn to the kind of sulky resentment and disengagement that characterize desolation.

In any discernment of spirits there is a need for a process of ‘confirmation’, a time of reflection and weighing up, a sifting of feelings and reasons. This is what the Irish people are embarking on now. Serious questions remain – for us and for other countries considering going down the same route. Does equality always have to be conceived of in terms of uniformity? How do we identify and value the distinction and diversity than exists between male and female? How – in a debate characterised by an appeal to rights language- do we honour the rights of children, do we consider that their sense of identity can truly be honoured by the Brave New World of surrogacy and reproductive technologies, already sketched in the dystopian 1984 Handmaid’s Tale of the Canadian feminist novelist Margaret Atwood? How, in our public discourse, can we blend more harmoniously the appeal to story and witness with the appeal to analysis, the language of rights with that of the common good?

In particular of course there is need for an already demoralised Irish Catholic Church to take stock. The Bishops, for the most part, were restrained in their approach to campaigning, unable to support the Referendum, advising serious reflection, and yet basically, without using the terms, leaving it up to people’s consciences to vote. Archbishop Martin said very clearly that he was voting ‘no’, and explained why in terms of faith-informed reasons that were accessible. Now, in response to the result, he acknowledges that the church needs ‘a reality check across the board’, that it has to find a new language to get its message across, particularly to young people, and that if teaching isn’t expressed in terms of love then the Church has got it wrong.

But one senses that it is more than a new language that is required. When the teaching on male/female complementarity is invoked as part of the argument to bar women from office; when the teaching on natural law forbids contraception and describes homosexual relations as intrinsically disordered in a way that jars with the ‘sense of the faithful’ of so many of the baptised, then the Church, despite the many wise things it has to say on sexuality and parenthood, loses credibility.

Archbishop Martin and his colleagues here in Ireland – and further afield – need to take up with energy and enthusiasm the challenge of Pope Francis for a more collegial and dialogical church, in which the voices of all are heard. Then perhaps we can hope for an ecclesial Pentecost to correspond to the secular celebration last Saturday in Dublin, a joyful re-birth of our badly damaged church.